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Creating Backyard Habitat for Herps
Creating Backyard Habitat for Herps
Published by midwesternerr
Default Creating Backyard Habitat for Herps

Creating Backyard Habitat for Herps

Reptiles and amphibians (hereafter known as herps) are interesting creatures to observe. While many books have been devoted to attracting birds to one's homestead, far fewer references are available for attracting herps. One reason for this is that herps' requirements are less understood, or at least understood by a smaller group of people. Another reason is that herps cannot fly. One's ability to attract herps to the homestead is limited to what can crawl or hop its way onto the property. Transportation of herps from one area to another is a dangerous practice that spreads disease and harms an area's existing species.

My knowledge of reptiles is largely based on the Midwestern United States. One should keep in mind that while much of this information will generalize across the United States, some of it will not. The information may need to be tweaked in certain areas or refer to habitats which are nonexistent in your area.

What species are candidates for your yard?

If one's property is large or borders a park or undeveloped area, the list of possible species will likely be quite large. In highly developed suburban or urban areas, the list of likely candidates will likely be much shorter. In general, frogs can be attracted to most yards, even those in areas with substantial development. They tend to show up following storms when they stop in at suitable habitat. The more development surrounding the yard, and the "neater" the areas are kept, the potential for reptiles dwindles accordingly. There are exceptions, of course. I know of lined snakes living around homes in St. Louis, MO. Several cities in the US have introduced lizard species as well. In order to provide herps with the best habitat, it's required that one understand how they use various habitats.

Old Field & Prairie Habitat

The old field & prairie habitat tends to house a large number of species. Due to the amount and thickness of vegetation, herps are not easily seen in this habitat. This causes many people to believe few species are in these areas. In my area, the timber rattlesnake (when connected to large parcels of wooded hillsides), copperhead, prairie kingsnake, bullsnake, common kingsnake, ringneck snake, black ratsnake, racer, earthsnake, ribbon snake, and eastern garter snake are all species I've found in these habitats. They are often hiding either in the thick grass or in borrows just beneath the surface.

A great variety of frogs and toads will also use these habits if they include fishless ponds. Salamanders may also use these same pools. Properties bordering these habitats can be enhanced by maintaining or planting local genotype prairie species and the addition of fishless ponds (described later in this document). Lizards can be encouraged by maintaining dry, open areas along the outskirts of the habitat. Some boards or rocks laid on top of concrete or gravel (perhaps where a building once was) are favored spots of lizards. Management of the habitat consists of periodic mowing or burning to prevent woody plants for taking over.

Glade Habitat

Glade habitat typically consists of thin soils often littered with exposed rocks and typically short vegetation. If you happen to live along such an area, you can expect to attract good numbers of snakes, lizards, and toads. This is especially true if the glade is fairly old and not one that has been restored only recently. Milk snakes, collard lizards, racerunners, ringneck snakes, earthsnakes, fence lizards, racers, common kingsnakes, and copperheads are common species I find in such habitat.

To extend such habitat into one's yard or create such a habitat one merely needs to plant or maintain common glade species and prevent takeover by woody species (usually cedar trees in my area). The glade habitat can be improved by the addition of large rocks, especially if much of the exposed rock has been removed. These species take advantage of the open conditions for thermoregulation and the safety of the many hiding places available on glades. Once the weather gets very hot, some species may move into more shaded conditions or spend daylight hours underground. Some lizard species will not cross shaded areas in order to find new glades. In these cases it may be required that you thin wooded strips seperating your newly created glade from the main section of habitat.

Flood Plains and Swamp Habitat

Flooded fields that hold water for a good portion of spring are great generators of frogs and toads. If you walk through such a field in the spring you should find great numbers of tadpoles and frogs. There may also be salamanders using the flooded fields especially if woodlands surround it. Water snakes will sometimes be found taking advantage of the amphibian population as a food source. Swamps tend to have interesting species of frogs, salamanders, and snakes depending on the exact conditions. Both sunny and shaded swamps produce interesting species.

If one lives in the vicinity of such habitat, mimicking it is well worthwhile. The best policy is simply not to mess it up in the first place. If it is too late for that, permits may be needed to restore the area back to a healthier condition. A bog garden, replanting a soggy area, or the addition of fishless ponds (carefully selecting the site) will almost certainly be welcome steps.


While many reptiles require open areas in order to thrive, a few species as well as many salamanders do best in shaded forests. Creating or extending such habitat into one's yard involves selecting the right type of trees or maintaining the existing trees on the property. Leaf litter and logs are important hiding places for many amphibians. The addition of rock will also benefit many lungless salamanders and small, secretive snake species.

Frogs and members of the mole salamander family will greatly benefit from the addition of fishless ponds. Some species of salamander will not cross thick grassy areas areas to find new ponds. You may need to plant trees connecting your yard to nearby woodlands in order for some salamander species to find and begin breeding in your ponds.

General Guidelines:

Now that you've discovered what habitat your property is connected to and have some idea what types of herps you might be able to attract, we are ready to go over a short list of guidelines for enhancements.

Adding Rocks and Logs

Rocks are best if they are good sized and some should be fairly flat and relatively thin. The flat, thin rocks will heat up faster than the thicker, rounder rocks. This will provide a variety of temperatures should herps decide to hide under your rocks. Logs are more often used in shaded conditions, but I've seen snakes and lizards use old telephone posts in full sun. Logs can be of almost any size. Placed along the edges of a pond or in moist woodlands, they may be used by a wide variety of amphibians. Many herps depend on an abundance of cover objects for shelter and location of prey items. A mouse carefully tucked under a rock is safe from all predators, except the snake! Earthworms often accumulate under rotting logs where salamanders find both them as tasty treats while remaining concealed themselves. Should you peer under such an object, you should remove the herp first before returning the rock or log to its original position. Set the herp next to the object so it can return underneath it. It is best not to disturb the herps or their eggs too often.

Leaf Litter

Leaf litter is an important component of the woodland forest floor. Salamanders and many small woodland creatures seem to benefit from this. Many small insects thrive in the leaf litter as well providing prey items. The entire yard need not be covered in leaf litter smothering the understory plants, but I certainly believe leaving a healthy dose of leaf litter will benefit both woodland plants and animals. It will break down and add to the soil structure over time.

Adding Fishless Ponds
After making sure you have all permits and permissions needed to do so, you may dig a hole to the desired size. Use the best rubber pond liner you can afford. It should be marketed as safe for fish. Usually old carpet or sand is used to add as padding to reduce the risk of puncture. The pond should be situated so that ground water will not run into the pond and contaminate it. The pond must have have gently sloping sides and no rock overhangs to prevent it from becoming a pitfall trap. Some amphibians are poor climbers.

You may wish to include a small fountain which will keep give a more formal look to the pond, solar powered models are available. A pile of nontoxic plant leaves at the bottom of the pond will help overwintering amphibians as will ensuring the pond is at least 3 feet deep. There are also small heaters you can purchase to keep a small hole in the pond open for gas exchange.

Amphibians are sensitive to commonly used chemicals, cleaners, and soaps, and these should not be used in the area of the pond or on any pond materials. Herbicides, pesticides, and other chemicals should be kept as far away from the pond as possible. Many people believe it is beneficial to remove chloramine from tap water, especially when larval amphibians are present. Amquel is a commercial product which will do this.

Treefrogs can be encouraged by planting a few trees somewhere near the pond if none exists. The trees need not directly overhang the ponds, at least for some species, as I've seen treefrogs climbing down from trees 15 feet away and migrating to the ponds for breeding. Most seem to return to the trees before daylight.

Some species of salamanders breed in fishless streams. A small brook can be created using a circulating pump. The brook should contain lots of rocks both in and near the water for the salamanders and larvae to hide under.

Creating Backyard Habitat for Herps-frogpond.jpg
An example frog pond (above). Rocks can be used, but be sure a good portion of the pond includes gently sloping sides for those creatures who are less agile.

Tree Removal

Glades, prairies, and old fields need to have woody plants removed periodically. Chainsaws and fire are effective means of doing this work. You should consult wildlife managers in your area to find the best times and methods of conducting controlled burns for the species using your land. Trees can be cut down with chainsaws and left where they lay as additional cover objects.

Snakes in the Yard Space: What are the dangers?

While most snakes are harmless, a few are venomous to humans. In some areas venomous snakes are either nonexistent or only exist in a few very remote areas. In other parts of North America they are very common. It's a good idea to be able to identify all venomous species that could occur in your area.

If you cannot identify such species, it is best to avoid contact with any snake. Most snake bites happen when a person is trying to capture or kill the snake, and when the person is male and under the influence of alcohol. You can also use a four tine cultivator to move objects a venomous snake could be hiding behind or under or use a stick to reach under things (like a shed) if needed to retrieve something. You should never place your hands in places where you cannot see what is under there. It could just as easily be an opossum as a venomous snake under there. If you must walk in tall grass containing venomous snakes, get the tallest pair of snake proof or thick leather boots you can comfortably wear.

There are less than 5 venomous snake bite deaths per year in the United States while 120 people die annually from bee stings, in 2001 more than 800 died from accidental gunshot wounds, and 150 die annually from lightening strike ("Snakes" & "Statistics").

A nonvenomous snake's eye will usually look something like this
Creating Backyard Habitat for Herps-nveneye.jpg

While most venomous snake's eye will look more like this
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This seems to be true of all venomous snakes in the United States except the coral snake. Milk snakes and other look alikes are often confused with coral snakes. First off, the coral snakes only live in the Southern part ofthe United States. Second, red and yellow bands touching only occurs in coral snakes and not the other species. It may help to remember that if the stop color and the yield colors are touching that it's a coral snake (Conant & Collins, 1998).

Although a bite from a large, nonvenomous snake can be alarming, I find this is a fairly rare event. It is not often that a nonvenomous snake actually strikes me and usually it doesn't hurt much when they do. Out of the hundreds of snakes I've had in hand, I think maybe 3 or 4 has landed a strike. Most of those were small snakes and the bites were painless. Copperhead bites are not considered life threatening but medical care should be sought to prevent possible infection and to insure a serious reaction does not occur. Where possible you should wash your hands after handling any herps, especially before eating. You should be careful not to handle amphibians if you have chemicals, such as insect repellents, on your hands.

Further Information

The best way to learn about herps needs is to go find them in the wild. By returning rocks and logs to their rightful position after removing snakes and salamanders to safety (use long a stick to prod a venomous snake to move) you can minimize the impact this activity has on these creatures. Additionally, most states have a herp atlas where you can report your finds to be logged and used to track herp population trends over time. Most of the time this can be done with nothing more than a field guide and a digital camera. Use the field guide to learn the key identification characteristics of the species and the camera to record them. It is not required to deposit specimens into University collections in most cases, and collecting the herps is often counter productive since it removes a possibly valuable specimen from the wild where it has a job to do.


Conant, R., and Collins, J.T. (1998). Reptiles and amphibians: East/Central North America. Houghton Miffin: New York.

Snakes of Missouri Retrieved from Snakes of Missouri

Statistics, Gun Control Issues, and Safety. Retrieved from FIREARMS TUTORIAL
By Equilibrium on 10-27-2009, 01:08 AM

A breath of fresh air to see fishless ponds covered. This is a great article. You rock midwesternerr. I turn over logs and rocks to see what I can see too. Herps of Illinois, INHS Amphibian & Reptile Collection and http://www.chicagoherp.org/herps/herpsofil.html Herps of the US, NPWRC :: Checklist of Amphibian Species and Identification Guide
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By Equilibrium on 10-27-2009, 01:25 AM

I don't know if you caught this or not but the November Issue of Ecology Letters is going to be publishing research on predatory fish introduced to artificial ponds and the resulting loss of biodiversity. My bet is this is Jonathan M. Chase's research.
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By Random on 10-27-2009, 06:35 AM

Thank you for this article. It's very useful. One of my winter projects is a herp accessible fishless pond, a topic I know zero about.
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By NEBogger on 10-27-2009, 08:02 PM

Midwesternerr, thanks for the info. Seeing skinks dart around this summer has gotten me curious about other herps in my area.
I have heard frogs scream twice, while being eaten by snakes. Was right there once, but missed the actual assault, a snake came out of the rocks, grabbing the frog from the water, this I heard, then saw the snake retreat in the rocks with the frog in it's mouth. I bet they've eaten a few of the skinks also. Will have to try the above mentioned habitats.
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By Random on 10-29-2009, 05:57 AM

I was not aware of the local herp atlas idea. Seems we have one put out by our DNR. Thanks for passing on that information.
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